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Ian P. Murphy |

Operators are embracing the social media to help communicate with customers and build brands.
CHICAGO — Where would your business be without the Internet? Even if you never built a website, Google and Yelp! tell people where you are, what you do and how well you do it. With their smart phones and iPads, people no longer reach for the Yellow Pages. Time and technology have marched on.
Now, social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn are using the web to create and maintain bonds between people. Helping hundreds of millions share information and opinions, they have become a powerful communications tool.
They can also help create bonds between people and your business. “Social media is word-of-mouth marketing,” says John Zimmerman, operator of eRocketFuel, a social-media marketing agency based in St. Charles, Ill. “It’s people talking to people about their likes and interests.”
If you think that Facebook is only for telling friends what you had for breakfast and Twitter is a tool of regime change, think again. Progressive operators are using social networks every day to communicate with customers and build community.
“Social media is more about the ‘social’ than the media,” Zimmerman says. “It’s about authenticity, integrity and truly caring for your clients. When you use these tools, you will start to engage people, and they will start to call you.”FACE TIME
Among Facebook’s 600 million regular users, the largest and fastest-growing category is people aged 35 to 54—members of the Baby Boom and X generations. These people have jobs, tight schedules, kids and clothes that need to be cleaned. In other words, they’re the people you want as friends, and “Facebook is about relationship-building,” Zimmerman says.
“We don’t use Facebook to drive sales,” says Hangers Kansas City operator Joe Runyan, who posts regularly on Facebook, Twitter and a blog, Joe The Entremanure. “Facebook is an opportunity to have fun with our customers. It keeps us top-of-mind.”
That means customers and potential customers are thinking and talking about your business; if your business is top-of-mind, the competition isn’t. Knowing this, Runyan says things in Facebook posts and Twitter dispatches (“tweets”) that the “upstart” in the marketplace—Procter & Gamble’s Tide franchise—couldn’t. A typical post? “If love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?”
“Their entrance into the market made us look at ourselves and say, ‘There’s no way we can outspend P&G at marketing. What is it we can do that they can’t?’” Runyan says. “It’s a focus on being kind of quirky, and saying things that their corporate marketing department wouldn’t let them say.
“We try to get customers to like to do business with us, whether it’s with a friendly driver, a funny Facebook post or something else,” Runyan says. “My Dad told me a long time ago, ‘People like to do business with people they like.’ Whether it works or not, it’s fun—and ultimately, I think it does work.”
Since entering the social media, Hangers rarely advertises in print. “We couldn’t get good ROI,” Runyan says, “and there’s really no cost in doing this stuff.”PURITAN PRIDE
When businesses have lots of Facebook fans, they can use their pages to announce specials, promote events, and be a “friend” to the community. But the effect snowballs when the influencers in the community “Like” your business and start doing the marketing for you.
For the last three years, Richmond, Va.’s Puritan Cleaners has been pumping up its presence in the community using the social media. A Facebook page shows photos from its many charitable events such as 100,000 Meals Food Drive and Coats for Kids. The resulting publicity once might have amounted to a release in the newspaper, but thanks to the social media, events have attracted live feeds from local TV stations and increased exponentially in participation.
When Puritan hatched the idea for a “Free Pants Wednesday” promotion in 2009, executives decided to announce it only in the social media, posting it, tweeting it and taping a humorous YouTube video starring—what else?—a pair of pants.
Puritan took in 1,311 pairs of pants in a single day. Piececounts were 47% higher than an average Wednesday, and revenue was up 26%. Better still, the operation collected 600 new e-mail addresses for use in ongoing sales promotions. “We decided that this proved there was something to it,” says operations manager Norman Way.
The second year (again, aided by the social media and additional YouTube videos starring Detective Pants Wednesday and his girlfriend, Hot Pink Pants), the promotion netted 1,600 pairs of pants, piececounts were 74% higher than average, and sales were up 33.5%.
Still, Way says that posts and tweets should be more of a conversation than a sales tool—a back-and-forth between customers and a trusted friend in the industry. “Facebook and Twitter can bring  increases in sales, but the primary benefit is that it keeps us top-of-mind,” he says. “We often become a topic of conversation where we normally would not be. A lot of people come in and say, ‘I usually use so-and-so, but thought I’d come in and try you.’”
There is a subtle benefit, of course, to the bottom line. “Our numbers were never down as much as other cleaners,” Way says, during the economic downturn. “Our presence at the top-of-mind aided us in the sales game.”SOLD ON SOCIAL
The new-media tool that drives retail sales best is e-mail. Once you have an e-mail address, you can send news and offers where current customers look frequently. “E-mail is a great way to communicate,” Runyan says. “We’ll send an offer out twice a month via e-mail. We try to scratch the backs of the people who already use us.”
If you’re looking for commercial accounts, try the professional social network LinkedIn, Zimmerman suggests. “The bigger opportunity is getting contracts with a large company. You have the potential of a six-figure account.”
While the social media have few upfront costs, you must to make sure they convey an image appropriate to your operation. And once you start, you will have to keep things fresh to encourage engagement with friends and followers—and that will require staffers’ time and thought.
Your plant may already have a pool of social-media marketing talent in its younger, tech-savvy employees. “Find that guy or that girl at the counter who’s got their face down, texting,” Zimmerman says. “Grab them and put them to work on it.”
At Puritan, several employees contribute, with employee Dane Gay shouldering much of the burden of communicating with 800 Facebook fans and 1,600 Twitter followers. “The person you have to hit in the head and tell not to text and post on Facebook may be the person you need to make you a success on Facebook,” Way says.
Way admits, though, that the social media are a “moving target”—once you master one application, a new one pops up and marketers must elevate their games to stay on top of it. Next up for Puritan is the activation of a mobile app that allows customers to schedule service and check on their orders.
“The most important thing is communication,” Way says. “A client either lives or works near us. They are our neighbors. They are the people who socialize with us outside the business. The social media helps them socialize with the business.”
 

About the author

Ian P. Murphy

American Drycleaner

Ian P. Murphy is a freelance writer based in Chicago, and was the editor of American Drycleaner from 1999 to 2011.

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